Writer: Laura Kristine Johnson
Photographer: Duane Tinkey

“I was so frustrated with my peers, who were all about hairspray, curling irons and whose socks were cooler. And I was just like, that stuff isn’t important.”

Yvette Zarod Hermann perches on a blue plastic chair in an Art Force Iowa classroom on Des Moines’ north side as she recalls growing up in Long Island. In 1960, her grandparents had fled the Bronx, where her great-grandparents remained, for the New York suburb. “I got to see both sides: the ghetto and the suburbs,” she says. “My heart stayed in the Bronx.”

That contrast sparked her passion for social justice. “I’ve always had this social justice inflammation feeling,” she says. “The Bronx is where, until probably two or three years ago, no one went.”

Now 44, Hermann pursues that passion daily as the project director for Art Force Iowa, where at-risk teens can paint, sing and write their way to self-improvement, gaining a dose of life and career skills along the way.

“Once youths are court-involved, they become very marginalized,” Hermann says. “They’re not trusting adults. They just want to be left alone. Judges recommend us as a pro-social activity, but youths are not mandated to come here. We’re not social workers or counselors. Instead of asking ‘What did you do to have a record?’ I get to ask, ‘What kind of artist are you?’ ”

Hermann has been involved in education since graduating from the University of Notre Dame with an English degree in 1994. She worked at a nonprofit theater company in Atlanta before pursuing a master’s degree in education from the City University of New York’s Lehman College in the Bronx. After teaching stints in the Bronx and Atlanta, she moved to Iowa, where her husband, Eric, is from.

While teaching English at Grand View University and DMACC, Hermann encountered an ex-offender in his 50s who expressed his concerns about what was happening in his community. “He said, ‘I’m watching all these kids that I love doing exactly what I did, and they’re going to end up exactly where I am. I don’t want that to happen,’ ” Hermann says. “He wrote a novel when he was in prison but wished he didn’t have to wait until he was in prison to realize he was a writer. He knew the community we needed to work with and the grants we should apply for. The stars aligned.”

In 2012 Hermann joined forces with other concerned citizens to form Art Force Iowa, which is located kitty-corner from North High School. She leads a workshop on dance and another on creative writing—two of the 12 workshops Art Force offers each week. Overall, the organization serves about 75 court-involved youths each year. Participating youths have gone on to full-time jobs, undergraduate programs in the arts, and other opportunities.

“Yvette is the driving force of why these programs are successful,” says Cyndi Pederson, executive director of Art Force Iowa. “She has the ability to earn our students’ trust and is a great listener.”

Hermann envisions one day bringing art-centered programs to at-risk youths around the country, morphing Art Force Iowa into Art Force America. She’s also working to ensure that study-abroad programs in the metro area include more minority children.

“I’m so excited for a future where we’re actually talking about white privilege and acknowledging that it’s really uncomfortable and untenable,” Hermann says. “I’m so excited for social justice. I think I’ve always known that there’s no such thing as a bad kid. When youths have parents who aren’t able to take care of them, they get pulled into the system, and they don’t deserve it. But their resilience is inspiring, and I love working in a place that’s inspiring.”

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